On Thursday, NATO announced that it will send ships into the Agean Sea to deter human traffickers from bringing migrants into Greece, a decision that may have troubling implications for refugees attempting to flee Syria and other war-torn countries.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that "the goal is to participate in the international efforts to stem the illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean,” adding, that it is “not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats.” Instead, the move is designed to collect "critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”
So far in 2016, nearly 75,000 people have undertaken the treacherous sea trek, most of them from Syria and Afghanistan. According to the UN Refugee Agency, "the vast majority of those attempting this dangerous crossing are in need of international protection, fleeing war, violence and persecution in their country of origin." The International Organization of Migration has determined that so far this year, 409 have died or are missing after attempting to cross the sea.
The decision to deploy NATO's muscle to battle smugglers emerged from requests for help from Turkish, German, and Greek officials, who met with NATO leaders in Brussels this week. The BBC reports that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also spoke about the importance of stopping the "criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people," trying to find refuge in Europe. The United Nations has also identified human smuggling as a crime that has left thousands of migrants dead.
NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 is currently deployed in the region and will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings in the Aegean. It will also establish a direct link with the European Union’s border management agency, Frontex… As part of the agreement, NATO will cooperate closely with national coastguards and the European Union. Military authorities are now working out the details of the mission.
Sky News reports that in a press conference, Stoltenberg said three warships would be sent out from their current station in Cyprus "without delay."
But as The New York Times points out, the details of the plan remain unclear—potentially putting refugees at risk:
General Breedlove told reporters that many details of the operation were still being worked out, including how to deal with refugee boats that are intercepted, and the rules of engagement. “This mission has literally come together in the last 20 hours, and I have been tasked now to go back and define the mission,” General Breedlove said… Many thorny questions remain, like even how to distinguish between legitimate migrants and the smugglers whom they have paid to facilitate their escape.
Stoltenberg went on to discuss the migrant crisis as a global one, saying it was “important to respond swiftly, because this crisis affects us all.” He continued, "all of us have to contribute in finding solutions."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.